Meet 'Ahmed Abdullah': Al Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue on his unprecedented UAE adventure

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The striker known as Sebastian Tagliabue is no more.

Well, sort of…

“I hear many names and one time, three years ago, one guy asked me and in that moment I said ‘Ahmed Abdullah’ – that is it,” the beaming new UAE citizen tells Sport360 about his unofficial Arabic identity under the pleasant late afternoon sunlight at Al Wahda’s Al Shahama training base.

“My name is still Sebastian Tagliabue, or Tigali how they like to name me here.”

A fusion between FIFA residency rules, that permit nationalisation after five unbroken years in situ, and notable domestic changes ignited by November 2017’s Presidential decree that allowed expatriates, residents, UAE-born and children of Emirati mothers to be able to compete in official UAE competitions has provided an unexpected twist at the end of the 34-year-old’s record-breaking career.

The Argentina-born scorer of 149 goals in 152 Arabian Gulf League fixtures should also be joined by Al Ain’s Brazil-native forward Caio Canedo, 29, in March’s squad to play crucial World Cup 2022 qualifiers against Malaysia and Indonesia.

Naturalisation of foreign footballers fits into wider changes impacting UAE society.

Permanent residency visas (in five or 10-year renewable stints) were granted in 2019 to investors prepared to spend Dh5 or 10 million, or for “persons with specialised talents”.

A total of 1,272 people were awarded these visas last year. This number expands to 2,169 if you include eligible family members.

This, inevitably, leads to multi-faceted questions about assimilation and adoption of the native culture. Will we see Tagliabue don traditional garments?

He answers: “Many people say: ‘you have to wear a kandora [or thawb, an ankle-length tunic with long sleeves typically paired with a headdress] now.’ I say: ‘no.’

“This is because it’s not my culture. I am respectful and I feel that if I wore a kandora I will disrespect the culture here.

“It is not my culture and I do not have to show the people here, ‘wow, look, I wear a kandora, I am nice like you.’

“No. They wear kandora and it is their culture, their life.

“My life is another thing. I say again, I respect them, they respect me and on the field we will play together.

“For me, these people want to show I respect your culture and wear a kandora, but maybe after they do very bad things behind…

“I do not want to name the things. But you have to be good with you, you do not have to show anything.”

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Rumours about citizenship fizzed before January 2019’s Asian Cup. They amounted to nothing until November’s change of leadership at the UAE Football Association that preceded an uncertain start in World Cup 2022 qualifying.

Al Wasl attacker Fabio De Lima, 26, is also expected to soon gain a passport.

A landmark development. Even for a county whose ‘Golden Generation’ was safeguarded by colossal Morocco-native centre-back Ismail Ahmed and inspired by Saudi Arabia-born Yemeni Omar Abdulrahman.

The South American duo of Tagliabue and Canedo could not envisage this longed-for eventuality reaching fruition even a year ago, as the former’s tale reveals: “I met with him [Canedo] in the airport when we finished last season. He told me: ‘I will go to Al Ain, they [UAE authorities] said something about a passport like you, but we will see…’

“I shook hands with him and I said maybe we will meet again in the national team. He laughed.”

March’s double-header has become a serious matter for Tagliabue.

Twin defeats to Thailand and Vietnam, plus an abysmal Gulf Cup, caused the exit of beaten World Cup 2010 finalist Bert van Marwijk after 260 days in charge. They also reignited efforts to get the duo’s documentation in time for the spring’s decisive tests.

“The first contact was one-and-a-half, two years ago when the first news was coming,” Tagliabue says. “Finally, the Federation [UAE Football Association] or the [then] president [Marwan bin Ghalita], I don’t know who, decided to not give it me.

“It was okay, I was not angry. Nothing, I never expected to reach this.

“It was painful, as many things came into my mind. But the second contact between us was one month before Christmas 2019.

“One of the [Wahda] management, Abdullah Salem, came to me and told me about the passport. I said: ‘I don’t believe.’

“He said they will give it to me and I replied I wouldn’t believe it until I had the passport in my hands.

“When I had it, I said to him: ‘Now, I believe’, I am more than happy.”

Former Al Nasr tactician Ivan Jovanovic will hand out, seismic, debuts.

Immediate results are an absolute necessity with the UAE fourth in their second-round group, five points behind leaders Vietnam with four games remaining – one more than their competitors. Only first place guarantees progression to the third-and-final stage, with the four-best runners-up following.

The utmost importance of attaining a second-ever World Cup berth was immediately impressed upon Tagliabue by 74-cap club-mate Khamis Esmail.

He says: “One of them [Emirati club-mates] surprised me on the first day that they knew about the passport, it was Khamis Esmail.

“He said: ‘Hey habibi, we want to qualify for the World Cup. So, be ready.’

“I said: ‘Wow, of course, don’t worry. I am.'”

The modest surroundings of Argentina’s Primera C–outfit Colegiales provided a springboard for Tagliabue to Chile – at Everton and Deportes La Serena – and Colombia’s Once Caldas.

Saudi Arabia would soon call. A promising 21 strikes were accrued in 44 Saudi Professional League fixtures at mid-table Ettifaq from 2010-12.

Riyadh giants Al Shabab’s subsequent investment was rewarded by a leading 19 goals in 25 run-outs. The SPL’s leading marksman then found a “second home” at Wahda in June 2013.

Ismail Matar and Sebastian Tagliabue (UAE Pro League).

Ismail Matar and Sebastian Tagliabue (UAE Pro League).

Achievement and fulfilment have followed in Abu Dhabi, alongside his wife plus two sons. Tagliabue stands as the second-highest scorer in UAE top-flight history, with only 18 more required to overtake World Cup 1990 icon Fahad Khamees and enter a class of his own.

He has also lifted a President’s Cup, two Arabian Gulf Cups, a pair of Arabian Gulf Super Cups and in 2019 fired them back into the AFC Champions League’s knockouts for the first time since 2007.

It has been some journey from Olivos, a city in the Province of Buenos Aires. This is why family and friends greeted the unprecedented UAE news with such emotion.

“They are writing to me, this is because they are more than happy,” Tagliabue says. “One of them wants to travel and see me with the national team.

“I said: ‘you are crazy.’

“All these things are small things that can become very big. I know the importance of this, but every step has shown me more and more.

“My father cried. He is very proud.

“It is an honour for me and my family, plus my family in Argentina, to defend this country. This is because for the last seven years they gave me a lot, for now and for the future.”

The UAE, evidently, means so much to Tagliabue.

He says: “It is almost half of my career in football, seven years, here – I have 15 years in professional football.

“It is my second home in the world. We are here now for seven years and my family is very happy.

“My biggest kid, and also my youngest, they always ask me: ‘How many more years will you play [in the UAE]? Why have you not renewed [at Wahda]?’

“They always want to stay, more and more, here. This means everything, as when the family is happy you are very relaxed.”

Tagliabue’s status as talisman at Wahda will, however, not be matched at the UAE.

He is thrust straight into fierce competition with Al Jazira’s lionised Ali Mabkhout; 2019’s leading global scorer in internationals with 16 goals in 13 caps and the UAE’s top scorer with, an astounding, 60 goals in 83 run-outs.

Canedo is a live-wire forward, in possession of 71 strikes in 122 AGL matches, comfortable up top or as a ‘No10’. Then there is 2015 AFC Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil who is also resurgent at runaway leaders Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club.

This has left Jovanovic with an “amazing problem” to solve as the spearhead in his trademark 4-2-3-1 formation, according to Tagliabue.

He says: “From my side, I will not compete with anyone. I am going to the national team to help.

“Now, it is the coach’s problem [Ivan Jovanovic] if he puts Ali [Mabkhout], Ahmed Khalil, Ali [Saleh], me, Caio [Canedo]…

“Now, I think he has an amazing problem. He will have a lot of players.

“We will have to adapt ourselves to the other players; myself to Ali [Mabkhout] and Ali [Mabkhout] to myself, if we play together.

“Also, there is Amoory [Omar Abdulrahman] behind us. We talk about this and my skin is getting goosebumps…

“It is amazing to speak about that. I hope to go to the pitch and have good relations.”

Advanced age is an obvious question mark. Simply, will Tagliabue still be around to fire for the UAE on the long road to World Cup 2022?

His rare dedication, though, has ensured he is still cut like a light-heavyweight boxer in his mid-30s. It is also why the possibility of scoring more goals than AGL games for a the fourth time in seven seasons – he’s currently on 12 efforts in 14 matches – is still a live one.

Bold changes have brought Tagliabue into the UAE fold. A nation expects and all evidence points towards these aspirations being met.

He says: “I always say that it is not about the age. It is about the quality and the player you have behind.

“There is always someone better than you and someone worse than you. You always have to give everything.

“At 34 years, the Federation [UAE FA] gave me a passport. This means something.

“For me, it [age] is only a number. I still have power, I do not know for how much more time, I do not know what will happen in the future.

“I hope to continue like this. About the World Cup – let’s first qualify for this stage and after we will see.”

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